Chapter 1

"They only conquer you after they kill your mind."

-Rowi Delacour, Leader of the Mongrel Soldiers

15 EP (2013 CE)

She didn't even feel the cold or the jagged pain of the ankle deep mixture of snow and volcanic glass her bare feet plunged into. The same applied to the frigid ashy air that bit at her olive toned skin and filled her lungs with every breath. Even if the harsh conditions of the wintery Blight Lands could effect her like the ikichies, or 'the slow' in Nahigua, they were the least of her concerns. What really worried Max were the hunters zooming overhead on their speedy military grade brooms. The riders sang the waskmos song to illuminate the night shrouded grounds of the barren, corrupted forest; singing it loudly to manifest a light bright enough to overcome even the darkness brought on by the ever rumbling skies. They guided the force below, charging ahead on their kanies, or the more properly termed 'kaninutara' - the giant, highly intelligent, and swift caribou-like beasts that were the preferred mounts in the upper half of Turtle Island. Halting behind a twisted and blackened tree to get her barrings, she could hear the riders closing in, and put a bit more speed in her step to cross a clearing. Aside from being able to outrun them, she knew the woods like the back of her hand; it was an extension of the only place she had ever known beyond lessons, memorizing every nook and cranny thanks to not only growing up there, but also through the ability to recall and view memories just like a pensieve - a mystic pool from which recollections could be relived. The anti-scrying wards infused into her very being also helped, forcing the pursuers to seek using their own eyes.

Sliding into a small gully, strewn by the remains of fallen trees, Max arrived at the rendezvous point. To her relief, over a dozen other children, half of her platoon, boys and girls with matching shaved heads and pajamas, rose from the natural cover to silently welcome their fellow Aniihko. Max hurried to join them, sliding beside their platoon leader, Zach. The light skinned boy, with a veneer of blonde hair, remained stoic as ever, but his blue eyes shinned with an inner joy at her safety.

It was less than a heartbeat before their sharp ears picked up one more set of fleeing naked feet, all glancing up to view another of their ilk reach the cusp of the hill. Their nose and eyes instantly recognized her as Jondy. Max couldn't help but let her glee form into the tiniest of smirks at the sight of her closest sister; the big eyed girl could remain up for days on end just like herself, keeping each other company after lights out in their barracks. Taking a spot aside her, Max's confidence of escaping rose, considering the two were separated at the beginning of their flight from the fortress. The distant castle of Manticore was given form by its internal lights, rising just over the horizon; not that any of the Aniihkos needed such luminance to make out their former shelter. Their former prison.

But we still have to reach the Kinipek wards, and thinking on this, the ever growing pounding of hoofs and whooshes of brooms shrunk this window of possibility with every passing second.

Speaking through his hands, Zach summoned them all to gather. To her shock, his fingers instructed they split into pairs and make a run to the wall, scattering. As he came to team up Max and Jondy, she refused. His face and firmly repeated gestures put iron into his orders. The irony of rebelling against their ikichi superiors by making a run for it, but instinctively falling back into obeying Zach did not go unnoticed, but urgency left no time for further contemplation.

Two of his Chimali soldiers, dressed in warm clothing and armored in their pitch colored, enchanted Anuan-steel scailmail over uktena-leather padding, struggled to drag along a captured Aniihko boy. Even though he'd been obviously hit by a stunning stupefy blast, he was still struggling thanks the giant essence fused into his being, giving him some of that practically extinct race's resistance; this also strengthened his muscles, which proved to be another pain added to his captors efforts in returning him behind the strong walls of the fortress. It was just one of the mystical species bonded to the manufactured super soldiers his liege had invested millions of Chulys into. However, the boy was just one of nearly a whole platoon that had escaped.

Just to remind Manticore's red headed commander of this disappointing fact, McGinnis approached. The fellow wizard and head of security had his eagle motiffed, hoplite-style helmet removed, exposing his long, big jawed, and dark skinned face. "I've ordered a full review, from top to bottom. And believe me, heads will roll."

Stifling a growl, Ron Weasley - a tall and gangly man in his early thirties, still cursed with freckles, and warmed by an officer issued heat-enchanted, leather long coat - harshly replied in Nahigua, "Just find them. All of them." The words were mangled by his British accent, despite spending over a decade on the other side of the Atlantic.

McGinnis nodded, but gave Ron a disapproving sigh before heading off.

His colleague was not wrong about heads rolling. Project Manticore was an utmost secret of the Miskehna League's ruler, the Capan. He knew if the experimentation was exposed, there would be another Traitors' War; it was why such pains were undertaken to hide it in the utter wasteland that use to be the Woimnayankel Territory, or what muggles once called Wyoming. And even if we can contain this, Kiluvia will have her own purge to keep that from happening. I don't even think she'll be able to save my arse this time. His mind drifted back to his flight from Britain after the Great Wizarding War erupted, and how Kiluvia sheltered him and the remnants of his family. Though even the stir of a memory from his life before the conflict, about what the world, and more importantly, what he personally lost, brought about his monstrous cravings for pints of firewhiskey. Get a hold of yourself, you bloody git. You still have much more to lose.

Adriana Cruefroid looked to him. She was his top Maskyno - Miskehni wizards who were masters of healing magics and herbology - and instrumental in helping develop the Aniihkos. The dark haired woman, whose face was a blend of European and Indigenous, common features to American casters, possessed infamous cold eyes; but fear had melted them away, despite the icy temperature. "What if any of them make it over the wall?"

Glowering, because Ron didn't even want to consider such a possibility, he made the painful decision and retrieved his wand. It was one of the few used in this part of the world. Aside from preferring their own focus of cuahuitls, engraved and beaded staffs or scepters, wands were also technically illegal under their iska-purity laws. Stupid as my old county's blood-purity, but even though he might personally object, the debate over such ideology had been decided long ago, and he'd seen enough loved ones die fighting in it. At least you can learn to use magic their way, in theory. Can't change the blood that flows in your veins...All codswallup. Such mandates didn't apply to him however, given his special position, which didn't endear him to many of his subordinates. He was sure this was Kiluvia's plan all along to keep him solely reliant on her for favor. In a way, the quasi-sentient mystic focus could be called a metaphor for not only his current situation, but the whole of his adult life; its construction from chestnut and possession of a dragon heartstring core made it not only as temperamental as he felt, but the curvy brittleness of the wand reflected his tenuous position.

Pressing it against his throat, he whispered an incantation that connected his voice to the snipers dispatched to guard the grounds' final barrier. "This is Weasley. If any of the Aniihkos make it to the wall, you are ordered to terminate." With their Giant essence, only a concentrated amount of stun blasts would stop them, but being they were children, a full powered shot guaranteed to bring them down.

The officer in charge nervously said back through his cuahuitl, "Confirming sir, you are giving the order to terminate?'"

"Yes, shoot them. I'll take responsibility."

Her orders received, the sniper, concealed behind a mound of snow atop a rise, raised her the expulsiwin rifle. The musket resembling weapon, with a snake motif decorating its length, was the standard issue killing device for the muggle members of the Chimali. Her's was longer than the common rifle, also lacking a bayonet, being it was meant for long range kills. Looking through the crystalline lens of the rune etched tube, magnifying her targets as well as allowing her to see into the night, she spotted the runaways.

The pair of Aniihko, hard to distinguish genders given their young age and sheered heads, reached the 'wall'. It was the common term for the powerful wards holding back the nightmarish spirits of the Blight, the Kinipeks. They were terrifying to gaze upon, seeing the large shadowy creatures stretch and swirl against the mystic barrier as if their vaguely serpentine shaped forms were made of drifting smoke; though if one let their eyes linger upon them, they could see their ghostly bodies bubble with screaming, pleading faces that appeared all too human. A whole host was drawn by the life energies contained within Manticore's grounds.

Focusing on her task, she aimed at the kids, who halted in awe themselves at the wall. Eying the miniscule ouroboros that marked the base of their necks, the sniper's finger closed around the trigger. Remember, they're not really kids. They're just some shamy-made freaks.

Suddenly she was knocked over, but managed to roll with the blow. Rising up, the sniper snapped about, scanning for the assailant, her rifle following her vision. In a blur, one of the Aniihkos leaped out, simultaneously knocking her weapon aside and yanking it free. The butt of the rifle colliding into her jaw was the last thing she felt before falling into blackness...

Standing over the soldier, Zach watched his sisters, Max and Jondy, finally charge through the wards, getting completely ignored by the Kinipeks beyond. His little brother, Ben, being the curious delver he was, had been the one to discover this fact, suspecting they too shared part of their souls with the creatures born of the Blight; it explained their ability to sense life energies, such as the soldier he just knocked out. He smiled internally, especially for Max, knowing the fate they had in-store for her. It was the reason he launched their escape, unable to watch another of his platoon get dragged away to the Maskyno's laboratories, and again, especially her. His relief was short lived, hearing the kanies and their riders close in. Max and Jondy were the last to evade pursuit, thus it was time to make his own run for freedom.

Holding onto the stolen rifle, he slipped through the trunks, but ended up stepping into the sights of another soldier. To his growing annoyance, his ears picked up the sound of a second coming up on his rear. The hunter facing him shot his weapon. Using his enhanced speed, the Aniihko easily dodged, catching a glimpse of the harrier behind him get hit with the stunning level blast. Pushing his muscles further, Zach rushed to flank the other soldier, and smashed the sniper rifle into his skull. The blow cracked the weapon and head protection, sending another opponent into unconsciousness.

Not even giving himself a second to breath, the boy hurried to descend the hill, except he found a whole squad of Chimali waiting. Before he could so much as flinch they pumped his resilient body with over a dozen stunning shots, overcoming his sturdiness. Zach rolled down the hill as the assaulting magic coursed through his nervous system, leaving him completely immobilized and at the mercy of the enemy closing in.

Max flinched as a Kinipek flowed around her, stinking of rotting flesh and filled with utter hatred. Their touch aroused the all too common urge to hunt and kill in the girl. However, it was short lived, watching her big brother go down and become swarmed. Sadly, there was nothing to be done, and listening to the training that had been firmly beat into them scream, she left Zach behind. They would be endangering the overall 'mission' by going back for him, even though it felt like a chunk had been ripped out of her heart.

She joined Jondy in the world beyond. Even as they fled further into more, but foreign dead forest, Max couldn't believe they had actually made it. It was never her intention they flee Manticore, but she was dead anyways, about to be dragged away like Jack. Eva, Zack, and who knows how many other siblings of her platoon had fallen or been captured so she could live. She wouldn't let that sacrifice go to waste without one hell of a fight first.

The Chimali were eager to take up that challenge, hearing the awiyaks on their brooms jet ever closer. If not for their gifts, the children would have already been overrun. So caught up in putting one foot in front of the other, she hadn't noticed the cracking ice, sending her plunging into the brackish, freezing waters beneath. Jondy yelled her name, but the light off a cuahuitl exposed her position, followed by the air being seared by the deadly killing-level blast of expulsiwin fire. Her sister was made to make the same choice they had for Zach, and abandon Max.

Below, the submerged Aniihko felt her flesh mold, her body manifesting a Lumpeguin's gills along her neck, while skin flaps connected between her fingers and toes. Using the aquatic additions to push herself deeper and farther from the hole, she remained still as a group of their hunters assembled near the lake.

Not far from the wall, by a small ice covered lake, Ron landed his broom amongst a small cluster of other fliers and a few kani riders. The Kinipek had been driven off by the hard to produce, gingery smelling incense of Hozah, which had been waft over the area. The Blight spirits were creatures of utter wrath, similar to the life force devouring Dementors of his homeland, and could be temporarily chased off by a mixture of Mansa Root, sage, and what amounted to raw powdered calm. He often wondered if the patronus charm - the solidification of his most joyful memories into a totemic force - would work on guarding against Kinipek as well is it did on Dementors; but he greatly doubted he was anywhere near pure of heart to summon it any longer. The white smokey substance was good enough though, and so potent, it even left the wizard in an almost complete zen-like state, which did nothing to help him or his soldiers focus on the urgency of their task.

One of the soldiers reported to him, "Sir, we've got seven so far – three wounded, two killed."

Three actually. His mind shot back to the beginning of the escape. He'd been going over reports in his office, covering the daily training regimes, when the alarm sounded. Speeding through the enclosing walls of cold stone, he arrived just in time to see the Aniihkos burst from their barracks. They were crowded around one he believed was the female designated X5-452, but called Max from the names the children gave each other.

The wizard wasn't given much time to confirm his assumptions, seeing the Aniihko in the lead raise a pistol, which she must have captured from a guard. Letting years of battle instinct take control, Ron flung from his wand the same destructive energies an expulsiwin rifle could summon, bursting open her chest with a fiery blast. Seeing the dead body of one of his 'kids', as he likened them, was akin to having another bite torn from his heart; and here he had thought there was nothing left of it, eaten up by the world before he ever left Europe. So absorbed by the small body of X5-766 - no, her name was Eva - it took the rest of the Aniihkos crashing through the windows to bring him back to the greater dilemma.

Willing through the effects of the calming powder, he wrapped all his frustration around his cold response to the soldier. "You've got a big problem if just one makes it to the outside."

"Well, realistically, sir, we're in the middle of the Blight. How far can these kids get?"

Pretty far you knobhead! Haven't you been paying attention to what we do here? "Just find them."

Unknown to Ron, one of his 'kids' had observed the entire exchange from the break in the ice. Max, seeing the man that had not only approved and personally oversaw the tortures to test their physical and mental limits, but also Eva's executioner, arose a wrath in her equal to any Kinipek's. The ikichi didn't even hesitate as he blasted her with the killing song. She wanted to rip out of the ice and snap his neck right there, even if the vengeance cost her life. But then Eva and the others dying would have been for nothing...

25 EP (2023 CE)

...And again Max finished reliving the escape with her iska-enhanced memory. It also coincided with seeing another of her siblings die to keep her free. It finally answered the question if any other Aniihko managed to get away, to keep free for the decade following that chilly desperate night. Until this point, no matter how many times she analyzed her recollections, she couldn't find anything that wasn't wishful thinking. Hell, the whole thing feels like a story I it happened to someone else.

She was no longer child of course, but at the end of her adolescence, a grown woman. Still a wiry female, just puberty brought on the curves all 'humans' of her gender earned, in addition to her nearly black hair reaching just past her shoulders to cover the Manticore brand. The Aniihko stood up from her perch atop the vacant Space Needle, a landmark in the city once known as Seattle, and gazed over the metropolis that was her new home, taking it in with her almond shaped doe eyes.

The disk-topped tower that she heard was once a restaurant, was one of the few high rising structures left from the Pre-Blight days. Presently, it was just another darkly ruin to remind the non-iska capable 'muggles' of the days before the existence of the awiyaks was revealed, and the following war of subjugation to them. The Skyscrapers of glass and steel were replaced by a mixture of Gothic and Salish-styled towers of wood and stone; and instead of a blanket of light provided by electricity, as she heard in tales of the Old Days, the current night was dimly lit by a network of mystically produced flames and waskmos songs. She was born of the Era of Purity, though, and much like Manticore use to be, it was the only world she had ever known.

The recall also reminded Max of how she would let her imagination play about over the fate of the others, coming up with fanciful stories. For Jondy, she pictured her sister growing into a photographer of the ruling Awasis's propaganda spewing 'Ohcitum Miterba' or 'The Fate's Word' in English; other times she even imagined her as an architect of non-magical construction. They sometimes let muggles do that stuff, because she knew pretending to be just another 'mugg' was the only way they could survive. But who am I kidding? They'd be living just like me. On the run and always looking over their shoulder. What she didn't like to consider, was that she was the only one to get away from that hell, that Jondy, Tinga, and Krit were all struck down like Zach. Finally finding one though had thankfully killed that cynical doubt. But now he's gone...and I'm on my own again. It also left her right back in the mists in regards to any other having made it.

Look at me hoping. Hope is for losers. It's a con job people trip themselves into believing so they can avoid the cold hard truth. Basking in the moonlight and the wind brought on by such heights, she continued her vigil over the once Emerald City. Ain't that what they use to call it? Not much green here anymore.Despite how crappy it was on the streets below, with the majority of the populace living in the decaying shadows of the Old Days, Max knew it was hundred times better than Manticore, and so she hoped they were free and okay.

I've managed to make it, and on that thought, her mind drifted down the tale of how she went from nearly freezing to death in the Blight Lands to finding herself on that tower.